Do You Know Where Your Grilling Charcoal Comes From?

Two men dropped their tools and fled on foot from an
approaching motorbike. They abandoned their own motorcycle, yellow jugs of
water, two hoes, and several charred lumps of wood. Nearby, wisps of smoke leaked
from soil mounds. Further afield lay bare roots of freshly felled trees. They had
been making charcoal, the same way people have done for years, stretching back
into prehistory: Cut down trees; gather the logs and branches into piles; cover
them with earth; light a fire underneath; and let it slowly burn for about a
week to produce a fuel that burns hotter and discharges less smoke than wood
does.This charcoal produced from the receding forest at Agyana,
an agrarian community on the edge of Nigeria’s capital territory Abuja, is then
packaged in bags and sold to consumers all over the world for their barbecue
grills, many of them unaware of the origin. It’s also in high demand locally, where
urban households buy it from kiosks to cook their meals. The producers, mostly
young men, invade the forests in droves in search of income.
In Agyana, the charcoal producers have formed an association.
The two men who fled, association chairman Gimba Abubakar explained, ran from
him because they did not pay the association’s levies.Nigeria lost nearly half of its forest area between 2007 and
2017, according to the World Bank’s Little Green Data Book. In 2017, the
staggering deforestation forced environmental policymakers to recommend a de
facto ban on charcoal export by ceasing to issue the permits required to
produce charcoal for export legally. But the following year, with this policy
still in place, other countries’ import of Nigerian charcoal grew by 34
percent, according to Comtrade, the United Nations export and
import database. Charcoal use for pleasure, rather than subsistence, seems to
be increasing: In 2020, the United States alone imported over 158 million
kilograms of charcoal from various countries, 42 percent more than in 2019 and
more than twice the amount a decade ago, in 2010.Africa accounted
for about two-thirds of global wood charcoal production in 2018, with dire
consequences for the continent’s carbon-absorbing forests. Deforestation is
frequently blamed on local dependence on wood fuels, in addition to land
cleared for farming, timber, and construction. But there is also another
factor: illicit charcoal export to countries in Europe and North America with
abundant modern energy sources, consuming charcoal for leisure and novelty. And
because illicit charcoal export is hard to track, very little is known about
the extent of the issue.In 2014, Nigeria started requiring
charcoal exporters to obtain a permit from the Federal Department of Forestry
by submitting, among other things, a reforestation plan for their area of
production. But rampant deforestation continued, hence the 2017 decision to
stop issuing permits entirely. The 2017 policy shift doesn’t seem to have had
the desired effect either. Nigerian official charcoal export figures don’t match
international charcoal import figures: According to
U.N. Comtrade, countries around the world reported importing more than $91
million worth of Nigerian charcoal in 2018 alone and more than $80 million in
2019, while the country reported just $4.5 million of charcoal export in 2018 and about half that amount in
2019. 

There’s some reason to believe these exports may
be reaching American consumers who aren’t aware of the origins. In December
2019, for example, two years after the government stopped issuing permits for
the export of charcoal, over 19,000 kg of hardwood charcoal was unloaded at the
port in Miami, Florida, according to Panjiva, a subscription-based website with import and export details on
commercial shipments worldwide. The port of lading was Algeciras, Spain, but the
product originated in Nigeria, shipped in a 40-foot container.A Nigerian company, Ike Godwins Business
Solutions, supplied the charcoal to Florida-based Red Ember Trading, which sells
hardwood charcoal to Americans. Red Ember Trading is a subsidiary of
Goldengrill, a Spanish charcoal manufacturing company.
Goldengrill claims on its website that its product is “made
of selected woods which are processed under strict pruning control required by
the environmental organizations in the Economic European Community”—a claim
hard to square with Nigeria’s export ban and widespread unsustainable practices
of charcoal production. Goldengrill did not respond to emails and phone calls
requesting comment for this story.Nigeria’s Ministry of Environment still maintains
that charcoal export is banned. “Yes, I confirmed it has been banned,” texted
Sagir el Mohammed, the ministry’s director of information. Adekola Razak
Kolawole, director of the Federal Department of Forestry, agreed in a phone
interview: “We have a total ban on charcoal export.”The discrepancy between official policy and
outcome is tough to untangle, but Kolawole, the director of the Department of
Forestry, said the decision about the ban had been clearly communicated to
Nigeria’s customs. He doesn’t understand, he said, why charcoal is still being
allowed through the country’s ports, given that his department had not issued
any export permits since 2018. The Nigeria Customs Service, meanwhile, denies
having any responsibility for stopping the exports. Charcoal, spokesman Joseph Attah
said, is not currently in the country’s export prohibition list that customs is
tasked with enforcing. Officials at the Department of Forestry countered that
getting a product into the prohibition list requires legislative action, which
takes a long time, and said customs was merely covering for its failure in
enforcing the ban. The current export prohibition list has only eight items, including corn and timber.Traders routinely obscure the origin of Nigerian
charcoal.As Nigeria struggles to control the trade that
is destroying its forests, the international community isn’t exactly helping. Countries
have no binding treaty to seize Nigerian charcoal even when it is exported
illegally. That is not the same with wood species covered under the Convention
on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. “You
cannot export rosewood,” said Tiamiyu Oladele, Kolawole’s predecessor at the Forestry Department, adding that without a valid export permit, upon arriving in
a country of destination, the product would be impounded. In a troubling
loophole, there is no similar regulation that applies when these endangered species
are processed and shipped as charcoal. Traders routinely obscure the origin of Nigerian
charcoal. In a market survey of barbecue charcoal in Germany, the environmental nonprofit World
Wildlife Fund found that while no charcoal sold in Germany was labeled as
being from Nigeria, some of it clearly was from Nigeria, particularly the
charcoal Germany imported from Poland, which in 2017 counted Nigeria as its
second-highest producer of charcoal, after Ukraine. “When I confronted German
customs with the results and ask what they are planning to do, the answer was
‘nothing—when the charcoal from Nigeria arrives, it is legal by definition,’”
said Johannes Zahnen, senior adviser for forest policy at WWF. The EU
Timber Regulation that came into effect
in 2013 prohibits entry of illegally produced tropical woods but does not specify
charcoal.Stacked hardwood lump charcoal at a shuttered Chinese-run charcoal factory in Nsukka, January 3, 2020. This factory was closed down by the Nigerian authorities for violating environmental laws and exporting charcoal illegally.Chikezie OmejeSince 2017, when WWF first conducted the market
survey, it has followed up with two more in Germany and similar reports in
Switzerland and Belgium. “All results are more or less the same,” Zahnen said. “Forty to 50 percent of the charcoal is from tropical species, many of them from
Nigeria.” WWF’s campaign against
illicit charcoal in Europe has not led to any policy changes. One Polish
company it identified as relabeling Nigerian charcoal with “Made in Europe”
did briefly lose its Forest Stewardship Council certificate, which is
intended to indicate that a company’s products come from sustainable forests. But
the company, Dancoal, was recertified in 2019.  The matter of Nigerian charcoal called into
question the reliability of the FSC certification system: Nigerian charcoal by
definition should not be FSC-certified, since no Nigerian forest is certified
by FSC. In December 2019, FSC acknowledged in a report that it had discovered that
some of the charcoal products it certifies were not coming from certified
forests and said it would consequently terminate 63 FSC certifications between
2018 and early 2019.Dania Mousa, media engagement manager at FSC, in
an emailed statement, explained that Dancoal’s certificate was reinstated after
the company demonstrated that it had addressed all nonconforming FSC products
in its supply chain and committed to purchasing charcoal only from FSC and
legal sources: “Dancoal was monitored for one year, and FSC continues to monitor
the charcoal markets in Europe.”Many
climate advocates may perceive charcoal as an energy alternative used mostly in
Africa by people without electricity.Polish imports of Nigerian charcoal, however,
continue—$11.5 million worth in 2019, according to U.N. Comtrade. Europe is still one of
the biggest destinations for illegal charcoal from Nigeria and also serves as a
conduit to other continents. Nigerian charcoal is certainly being burned in the
U.S., for example, without being labeled as such. A company called Bluecamp, registered in Georgia, received nearly 18,000 kg of charcoal shipped from Antwerp, Belgium, to
Savannah in April 2019, according to the bill of lading obtained from
Panjiva. The charcoal was originally supplied by a Nigeria-based company, Primewaters Trading and Logistics, from Lagos. Both companies had similar
transactions a year earlier with the bill of lading from Algeciras, Spain. Abayomi
Iwajomo, CEO of the company according to his LinkedIn profile and multiple business directories, declined to comment on the transactions. Similarly, when a 20,000 kg shipment of Nigerian
charcoal was received in a port in South Houston, in August 2018, the
bill of lading listed the point of origin as Antwerp. The charcoal was supplied
by Phoenix Import and Export, a Nigerian freight forwarder, to MBA Multiservice, a Houston-based
company. Algeciras, Spain, was the port of lading listed
for 20,000 kg of Nigerian charcoal supplied in July 2018 to JNK Investment, a New Jersey–based company, by Leerad West, a Nigerian company.The fact that tracking charcoal export is this
complicated may help explain why charcoal rarely comes up in global climate
change conversations, despite the danger the trade poses to tropical forests. Many
climate advocates may perceive charcoal as an energy alternative used mostly in
Africa by people without electricity. “It’s not broadly known that Africa, in
fact, exports charcoal to some other parts of the world,” said Catherine
Nabukalu, the project coordinator of District of Columbia Sustainable Energy
Utility, who researches the global charcoal supply chain. “What bothers me is the export to rich
countries.”When Nabukalu first questioned climate advocates’ neglect of charcoal in conversations about
global carbon emissions, her then professor, Reto Gieré from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the
University of Pennsylvania, encouraged her to research charcoal as an energy
source during her master’s program at the university. Together, they published their findings in 2019 in the journal Resources. “The charcoal trade is highly
informal, characterized by low record keeping and little to no tracking of the
source of inputs and waste materials along the value chain,” they wrote. While
charcoal production occurs predominantly in developing countries—more than 50
percent is produced in Brazil, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, specifically—the top importers
are disproportionately high-income countries with dense, reliable energy grids:
Germany, Japan, the U.K., the U.S., and France are all in the top 10.“What bothers me is the export to rich
countries,” Gieré said. “I think we should restrict the import
because it’s really used basically for leisure. It’s not essential. In
the countries that produce it and use it locally, that’s essential there for
the survival of the family. It provides jobs, it provides salaries for people.
I think that’s a totally different scenario.”Note: Nigeria is not listed here because the government only reported around $2.3 million in exports in 2019. The amount of Nigerian charcoal other countries reported receiving, by contrast, exceeded $80 million. That means Nigeria most likely belongs next to Poland in this chart, were exports being reported accurately.Trees left untouched absorb carbon dioxide. When
felled, they release it. And the process of burning the logs to produce charcoal releases carbon as well. It’s not clear how much this is contributing to
global greenhouse gas emissions. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that fuelwood and charcoal may account for 2 to 7 percent of global emissions, with sub-Saharan Africa accounting
for one-third of those emissions.“It signals that the dimensions of emissions and
climate change are distinct in much of Africa, different from the standard
narratives focused on fossil fuel emissions,” said Adam Branch, a reader in
International Politics and the director of the Centre of African Studies at the
University of Cambridge. “We need a better understanding of the many ways
that climate change is being driven from different parts of the world as well
as of the many ways that climate change is manifesting itself for different
communities globally.” Instead, the issue is
neglected—partly out of prejudice and misconception. “Charcoal tends to go below the radar of most national and
international regulation because it is seen as a premodern, traditional fuel,
one that is on its way out in a transition to fossil fuels or renewables,”
Branch said.Climate advocates’ reluctance to focus on
charcoal may come from a good place—not wanting to focus on what they see as
necessary charcoal emissions for fuel in low-income countries. This comes from
the perception that charcoal is a sign of energy poverty, with the belief that
the poor should not be deprived of their only source of energy because of
climate change. High-income countries, after all, are both disproportionately
responsible for climate change and better able to pay for the tools necessary
for energy transition.But the reality of charcoal consumption is more
complicated, and bound up in the assumption that food tastes better cooked by charcoal than by gas or electricity. Even in Africa, Nabukalu and Gieré found,
charcoal is largely consumed by urban households that have access to
electricity, though it may not be stable in some places, and charcoal could be
cheaper than gas. Bags of charcoal sourced from the forests of Agyana for sale to traders along the Abuja-Lokoja Expressway in Abaji, January 6, 2020 Chikezie OmejeThe charcoal trade is growing, and high-income
countries are playing a huge role in that. The value of global import of
charcoal grew by almost 22 percent between 2015 and 2018, according to analysis of U.N. Comtrade. That’s largely due to high-importing countries like Japan,
Germany, South Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, the United States, France, and Britain. As
demand soars, it is difficult for low-income countries to enforce a ban on
charcoal export. In 2012, for example, the U.N. Security Council
imposed a ban on charcoal export from Somalia. Years later a U.N. investigation found that illicit charcoal export from the
Horn of Africa was estimated at $150 million annually, generating funds for Al Shabaab, a terrorist group.Nigerian charcoal traders argue that legal
domestic consumption, not exports, is the primary driver of deforestation. “Less
than 10 percent of it has been exported out of Nigeria,” said
Audu Isa, secretary of the Association of Charcoal Exporters of Nigeria.
He denied any involvement of the association’s
members in charcoal export since the export ban, and said some members have
begun to plant trees, as they have realized that the ongoing charcoal
production mainly done by artisans is not sustainable. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari likewise told the U.N. climate summit in 2019 that his administration would
mobilize youth to plant 25 million trees “to increase our carbon sink.” But if the
charcoal export problem continues, these tree-planting
events may not be able to make a dent in the problem.In January 2020, I visited one of the two Chinese-run
factories by Kwo-Chief Investment Limited that specifically produced charcoal
for export. The site I visited, in Obimo Nsukka in eastern Nigeria, was as
big as six football stadiums. The way it had functioned, I learned, was that locals
would go into the forests, hunting for dwarf red ironwood. They supplied
the logs to the factories, which have tens of brick kilns. After burning the
logs, the lump charcoal was cut into regular shapes and packaged in cartons for
export.

It’s more efficient than the earth-mound kilns
used by artisans in Agyana and other parts of the country—more industrialized. And the villagers in this part of the country
hadn’t previously been producing commercial charcoal. The new export factories
had created large-scale logging where none had previously existed.In May 2019, the Nigerian environmental agency ordered the facilities to halt operations, on the grounds that
they were illegally producing charcoal for export. The following April, the
factories reopened and again began burning the logs being supplied by the
locals, who in turn are buoyed by new income.Until countries that import charcoal start restricting
import from countries that have banned its export, and until the international
community shows interest in establishing proper tracking and enforcement for
the global charcoal trade, it will be almost impossible for countries like
Nigeria to protect their tropical forests. Fighting charcoal-fueled deforestation
will require multiple steps, to be sure: Modern alternative energy sources need
to be cheaper than charcoal in low-income countries. But high-income countries
also need to reconsider the habit of cooking food over the charred remains of
tropical forests merely for pleasure.

2021-05-03 | Apocalypse Soon, Nigeria, Climate Change | English |